MERCEDES — Though Mary Gossett was born in Missouri, that was simply a brief episode outside the Valley. She was raised in the Valley and loved growing up here.

“The Valley was so pretty. It was totally full of orchards and flowers, so lush and green,” said Mary. “We lived out in the country on North White Ranch Road, La Feria. Orchards were everywhere and the perfume of hundreds of thousands of trees was wonderful.”

Life was simple and easy.

“I used to swim in the canals,” she said, laughing. “That was my swimming pool. We’d climb up in the trees, pick fruit and have grapefruit right off the trees in our backyard for breakfast. It’s sad to see the trees all gone.”

Mary packed tomatoes with her family when they grew abundantly here in the Valley. She was paid 10 cents per lug - a wooden box of tomatoes. Then her family followed the tomato packing to Henderson in East Texas since her father was in charge of the packing shed. On her 14th summer, she noticed a cute young man loading the tomatoes onto boxcars. Come to find out his name was Bill and over the next three years they became well acquainted - seeing each other every summer during tomato packing time.

Their families became acquainted - going to church together, occasionally having dinner together. Still, they were surprised when Bill came to the Valley when Mary was 17 and swept her off her feet and eloped. Her family said it wouldn’t last but 59 years later, it’s still going strong.

After the elopement, Bill and Mary had returned to East Texas to live with his parents. Her mother-in-law took Mary to high school and enrolled her.

“No daughter-in-law of mine is going to be a dropout!” she said with emphasis.

After graduation Mary first became a beautician, than went to college to become a teacher. Having three children, their daughter, Donna, followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a teacher. She, in turn, had a son who grew up to become a Marine. Teaching at a high school in Katy, Texas, Donna inspired her school to begin sending care packages to her son (on his way to Afganistan) and any other student who had gone into the service and was overseas. See where we’re going here?

Mary, meanwhile, had watched the Winter Texans have so much fun and had thought to herself, “When I retire, I would like to be a Winter Texan.”

Mary and Bill had retired, traveled all over in their RV and eventually settled in Paradise South in Mercedes, fulfilling her dream of finally become a Winter Texan.

One day her daughter said to Mary, “Mom, this program would be something good you could do with your people there. Why don’t you ask them if they have children or grandchildren in the military?”

This was over three years ago and not only has Mary taken up the task, the whole park takes part is some form or fashion for the program.

“We get names and addresses from people in the park - either their loved ones or friends. We gather all the fixins for the boxes and send them over,” said Mary. “We have a lady here in the park whose son is in Afganistan right now. He’s responsible for fixing the big Huey helicopters. Another lady’s son is on an atomic submarine and is in a combat zone when he’s out.”

The program has become more well known and now other service members send letters or emails requesting care packages for friends.

“One gentleman sent us names of young men and women who were working with him to fix helicopters,” said Mary. “He told us they were single and never got a package. So we’re sending them packages to make sure they get something.”

Donations are what make this program work. Each box holds about $20 to $25 worth of goods and the packages cost $12.95 to mail. Mary and Paradise South sell raffle tickets, t-shirts and whatever else they can think of to raise money. It’s not unusual for her to be walking along a park street and have a resident slip her $20 toward postage.

Her guest room actually has become the storage room for all the goods residents drop by their home - toothpaste, deodorant, cookies, books.

Each box will have a hand made card signed by members in the park along with their home state and an assortment of the following; a book or magazine, an assortment of snacks, beef jerky, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant (women especially appreciate women’s deodorant), sunflower seeds, aspirin, Tylenol, throat lozenges, eye drops, and feminine products. Anything that doesn’t ruin is a possibility.

“We also make crocheted hats that go underneath their helmets to keep their heads warm, Mary said. “When they put their helmets on, they rub their heads so the hats make them more comfortable.”

Everybody in the park does their fair share. It may be contributing items, money or time in helping to put the boxes together to ship out.

“I’d like to stress it’s not me, “ she said. “It’s the park. If I tried to do this myself, it would fall flat.”

The requests still come in.

“We received a letter from a gold star mom - a mom who has lost her child. She sent a list of names of her son’s troop that were in the Al Anbar Province in Iraq where her son lost his life,” said Mary. “She asked us just to write cards to these young men and women who were fighting for our country.

“A man stood up with a $100 bill and challenged the people in this park to match his donation. They tripled that donation. We sent a box to every one of those 33 troops last year. That’s the heart of these people in this park!”

With over 100 veterans in their park, nine from WWII, they remember what it was like and are always willing to do what is necessary to keep the program going and growing.

One of the recipients wrote to the army and the park received the Freedom Choice Award from the Army for their work in sending the care packages.

So Mary has attained her goal and more. A proud Winter Texan, she’s also so proud of the park that supports America’s troops with more than a word - sending almost 100 packages a year. Paradise South Gives Back - the program - is truly a work in action, love and reinforcement to the Americans so far from home.